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The Need to Travel With Emotional Support Animals Is Real, but Some Are Ruining It for the Rest of Us

As more people globally are living with mental illnesses such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and depression, the safety and comfort of support animals is growing in popularity. They are not without controversy.

As more people globally are living with mental illnesses such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and depression, the safety and comfort of support animals is growing in popularity. Traveling with Emotional Support Animals (ESAs), however, can be a challenge, largely because not every mode of transportation allows for animals.

Recently a student traveling home on Spirit Airlines attempted to bring her companion dwarf hamster along with her. The Transportation Safety Administration allows for traveling with just about any licensed emotional support pets; Spirit Airlines, however, does not.

She was told that the airline did not allow rodents aboard, a policy held by American, United and Delta airlines. Even caged, rodents are often vectors of disease, and major airlines choose not to risk the health of passengers and crew should the animal get loose.

Devastated and desperate, the student feared the tiny animal would suffer a prolonged death by being exposed to elements, or becoming injured. To avoid that, she flushed the hamster down the toilet ensuring its death would come quickly. (The bitter irony of this situation is indeed, a head scratcher).

In another instance, a peacock was denied a flight on United Airlines from Newark International Airport for a number of reasons. According to the Department of Transportation’s guidelines “airlines may exclude animals that are too large or heavy to accommodate in the flight cabin, pose a direct threat to the health or safety of others, could cause a significant disruption of service or are prohibited from entering a foreign country.” This incident has forced United to revise its emotional support pet policy beginning March 1, 2018. Emotional support animals will need to be registered and medically certified and the pet owner must have documentation that the animal will not cause harm. United Airlines will also require 48 hours pre-flight notice.

While some ESAs are allowed on planes, it’s important to note that they are not welcome on other modes of transportation such as buses, trains and taxis. ESAs are also not permitted in restaurants, markets and most motels.

Emotional Support or Service Animal?

How are Emotional Support Animals different from service animals? According to the Americans with Disability Act, service animals are trained to assist their owners with regards to their disabilities. One example of this is a seeing- eye dog, the dog compensates for the blindness of the owner. Emotional support animals do not need to help the owner with critical day-to-day tasks.

The ADA only recognizes dogs and occasionally miniature horses as service animals.

Do Emotional Support Animals really help ease anxiety?

According to the National Service Animal Registry, the answer is YES. The animal only need be in the presence of its human to provide comfort. Many animals, particularly dogs, are keenly aware of human anxiety and stress and they can and do respond accordingly.

The Human Animal Bond Research Institute (HABRI) agrees that when it comes to the benefits of the human/ESA bond, which expand beyond merely reducing stress and anxiety. The video below suggests that bonding with a cat has the power to reduce cholesterol, strengthen one’s immune system, boost children’s immune systems and lead to an increase overall health. HABRI also suggest that positive outcomes relative to heart health, depression, autism and obesity can be linked to ESAs.

However, broad statements like the ones above are not substantiated by scientific research. According to the Washington Post, the scientific evidence supporting the value of EMAs is not on par with the rising trend to bring one’s treasured creatures into public places. And if, in fact, the human’s anxiety is alleviated by their animal, the effects are short-lived.

HABRI has funded at least one study to measure the effects of animal intervention relative to PTSD. There were several sub-categories to the research: depression, PTSD symptoms, anxiety, social outcomes, sleep, child functioning and quality of life. The study concluded positive short-term outcomes for depression, symptoms and anxiety. Specifically, the participants expressed relief of symptoms while they were “in the moment” with the farm animals, and not significantly longer than the actual event. The study concludes by acknowledging that the study is in its “nascent” stage and that much more research is required before any solid conclusions are reached.

One slightly older study investigated the effects of a companion dog relative to depression and anxiety of elderly residents living in a senior-living facility. Similar to the HABRI study, the findings were that the participants felt happy while interacting with the dog (same pooch, same day and time for thirty minutes for each of 11 weeks). They felt a boost in social activity by discussing the dog with other participants. There was no measurable difference, however, in the control group (who were not exposed to the therapy dog) and any lessening of depression was not permanent.

Are EMAs a Scam?

Because emotional support animals are not required have special training,  many pet owners are taking advantage of the laws governing housing and pet ownership.

In a recent report by the Washington Post, numerous online organizations have sprung up, offering to certify your pet as an emotional companion. When your pet is certified to be an emotional support animal,  additional fees on top of monthly rent (which are high in most major cities), are waived. In fact, even if a building has a NO PET policy, that rule is also waived for certified emotional animals.

As of right now, there is no official “certified” documentation that is HUD approved. Again, any type of pet can be a certified emotional support animal.

There is growing cynicism surrounding labeling pets as emotional support animals. According to the Washington Post, if an alligator is certified as someone’s emotional support animal, the landlord cannot charge a monthly fee. Some people are classifying their pets as support animals to save money. According to The Post, pet rents can range from $25 to $75 monthly per pet. This is on top of an initial security deposit ranging from $250 to $1,000 on  average per pet. People who falsely claim their pets are for emotional support damage the system for those who are truly in need.

Dr. Hal Herzog, Ph.D., states in a recent Psychology Today article that many cottage industries have bubbled up, taking advantage of the unregulated ESA marketplace. With only a few keystrokes and/or a quick visit to Amazon and other online providers, your ESA can look documented and registered. You can buy what appear to be to be official vests, collars, leashes, tags, and other items marked “Service Animal” or “Emotional Support Animal.” No support documentation is necessary, and in fact, one can even order an “official” letter of certification online. Dr. Herzog sums the cottage pet industry up nicely in his statement “It’s the cesspool of human animal relationships that no one wants to talk about.”

The Future of EMAs

According to Psychology Today, three distinct organizations oversee and regulate the use of Support Animals. Those include The Air Carrier Access Act, The Americans With Disabilities Act and the Fair Housing Act. None of the above officially regulates Emotional Support Animals, and often, the decision to allow an animal to enter an establishment is left up to an uninformed employee. For example, in September 2017, a woman was dragged off of a Southwest flight because she was highly allergic to two dogs seated near her. The dogs, only one of which was an ESA (the other was just a pet), remained on the flight. Neither dog had documentation, yet the airline removed the allergic human passenger when she could not show medical documentation of her dog allergy.

Delta, like United, just changed their rules for ESAs. First, the animal owner needs to show proof that their companion has been vaccinated and is healthy 48 hours prior to the flight. Delta also requires that the owner submit a legitimate letter from either a doctor or a mental health provider assuring that the animal can and will behave during the flight. Delta also has stated that any animal that emits an odor will not be allowed on a flight. The airline has officially declared the following will not be allowed on any flight even with legitimate ESA documentation: hedgehogs, ferrets, insects, rodents, snakes, spiders, amphibians, goats, and fowl (which includes peacocks). And if you are thinking about bring your horned, hooved or tusked companion along, those need be left at home as well.

The cottage industry surrounding ESAs has proliferated in the last several years. There is a lot of money to be made selling services and goods designed to make the animal appear registered and legitimate. There are currently no public education campaigns on the subject of ESAs and how to spot fraudulent credentials. Skirting the rules for one’s own benefit degrades the system for legitimately trained and registered service animals.

Josh Barro, a contributing journalist for Business Insider, sums up the trend best when he describes bogus ESAs, particularly on planes: it’s a trend “that has a proliferating sense that we are entitled to have the world adapt to our preferences, instead of the other way around.”